Florida American Legion posts see impact of new legislation
By RON WHITTINGTON | For Shorelines/The Florida Times-Union | Published: November 27, 2019
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (Tribune News Service) — At American Legion Post 129 in Jacksonville Beach, Post Commander Joe Maichle says the legion is excited that new legislation passed by Congress and signed by President Donald Trump means more veterans can now join as members.
From its founding in 1919 until this summer, Legion membership was open only to veterans who served during wartime — excluding thousands of military service personnel who served a swath of years between The Vietnam War and Desert Storm.
"Finally, Congress has acknowledged the service and sacrifice of at least 1,600 veterans who died or were wounded in previously undeclared periods of war," said American Legion National Judge Advocate Kevin Bartlett, after the recent passage of the LEGION Act — which honors thousands of veterans who were killed or wounded on duty during periods not previously considered times of war.
Chartered by Congress in 1919, the American Legion focuses on providing services to veterans, service members and communities. The group evolved from veterans of World War I into one of the most influential nonprofit groups in the country and has nearly two million members and about 13,000 posts throughout the United States today.
For nearly 100 years, there has been no change in the membership criteria. Now, a veteran must only have served for a single day in active duty between World War I and today to be eligible to join.
"It's a big change, because before you had to serve during a war or military conflict, and receive an honorable discharge, to be a member ... and that left out thousands who served between the mid-70s and the mid-80s," Maichle said. "That's thousands who couldn't join the American Legion, or the VFW (Veterans of Foreign Wars)."
He's quick to note that the VFW is different from the American Legion. The VFW still requires its members to serve during wartime, but they must have served in the theater of combat — or 'in-country,' with boots on the ground.
There are three American Legion Posts in the Beaches area: Post 129 in Jacksonville Beach, Post 316 in Atlantic Beach and Post 233 in Ponte Vedra Beach. They are among 18 posts in the Northeast Florida District.
There are more than 650 members at Post 129, while there are upward of 900 members at American Legion Post 316 in Atlantic Beach.
"We have everybody from World War II through Vietnam and the Gulf wars and Iraqi Freedom," said Post 316 Commander Joe Johnson. "Now, there will be more military here to share their stories and experiences with this change in the legislation."
Johnson says his post has been promoting the change through its social media platforms like Facebook and urging members to "saturate their social media platforms" with the information, along with members' word of mouth.
There are more than 100,000 veterans in the State of Florida, so both commanders agree that there's a lot of potential new members.
Not widely known is the amount of charitable work the group performs in the community — and nationally — which goes beyond sending care packages to military personnel and other programs to support active duty military.
The Legion's recent motorcycle Legacy Ride, now in its 14th year, raised more than $1 million for charity.
Maichle notes that Post 129 recently donated $8,000 to San Pablo Elementary School to help complete a playground renovation project, worked with the Jacksonville Sherriff's Department during a Halloween event at the Beaches (giving out hot dogs to the kids) and is active in the city's annual Easter Egg Hunt, as well as the Opening of the Beaches event.
As the holidays approach, Post 129 is also collecting holiday cards to send to military serving overseas (due by Dec. 1), is serving as a toy drop location for the U.S. Marine Corps annual Toys for Tots Campaign, and its Post Auxiliary is hosting its annual children's Christmas party on Saturday, Dec. 15 — providing kids under 10 with toys and a special visit from Santa at 11 a.m. that day.
Maichle says that they are also finding that many of the younger veterans don't smoke, and "their families don't smoke, and they don't want their children in that environment." In response, Post 129 recently added a separate nonsmoking section in its canteen area and offers the same member programs on that side of the house as on the smoking side.
"The American Legion isn't just a bar," Maichle said. "In addition to all our member programs, we give a lot back to the community and worthy causes in our area."
He hopes that the recent changes in membership criteria will mean even more veterans will join and, through their dues and their involvement, the American Legion can have an even greater impact in the community — while bringing even more veterans together to share their experiences.